The Uses And Abuses Of Setting Deadlines


Whether it is school or work we are all familiar with having to meet deadlines. Some of us may find them a helpful tool while others find them a damn nuisance.

Is that ticking clock in the background really helping us work harder and more efficiently? Or is it giving us incentives to rush in some situations, slack off in others, or even frustrate us to the point where we neglect our work altogether?

This article wishes to explore these situations and ask the questions:

  • When are setting deadlines productive and useful?
  • And when do they inhibit us from doing a good job or achieving a goal?

In the rest of this article, I describe how deadlines can sometimes set us up for disappointment, and how deadlines can sometimes rush and inhibit creativity.

But I also describe how deadlines can be a valuable tool in motivation, and how deadlines can help us keep long-term goals in mind.

Here are 4 things to keep in mind when setting deadlines to help you use them as effectively as possible.

Setting a deadline for disappointment

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Douglas Adams

I want to destroy the notion that we must set deadlines for all of our goals. Some things just aren’t conducive to time-related constraints.

Take for example your health and fitness – is it really appropriate to take some arbitrary date and say, “I must lose 10lbs within the next month.”

What if you don’t meet your goal? What if you only lose a single pound? Are you going to feel frustrated and give-up? Albeit it’s a small step, but does not meeting your quota really take away from the achievement of losing one pound?

What if instead you said, “It would be nice if I lost 10lbs within the next month.” That is a much less restricting statement because you aren’t telling yourself what you absolutely have to do. You are still maintaining an empowering vision of the future without setting a constricting deadline (and setting yourself up for a potentially crippling disappointment).

You can’t rush inspiration

For some people their creativity is their main source of livelihood. Their job depends on them to come up with riveting ideas that capture people’s imaginations. This is true for people like musicians, filmmakers, and artists.

When I think about this in the context of deadlines I am reminded of a scene in the movie Adaptation. The whole movie centers around Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to create a film based on this book called The Orchid Thief. For those who don’t know Charlie Kaufman, he is a real writer and director. You might know recognize some of the films he’s directed, such as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York.

In the movie Kaufman (who is played by Nicholas Cage) gets a call from his boss wanting to know how the screenwriting is coming along. He says he needs to see it on his desk in a couple weeks, and in turn Kaufman replies, “You can’t rush inspiration.”

Is this true? Can you put a deadline on creativity? Creativity can come at any moment, sometimes putting ourselves in the right environment to be creative (and taking your time)), is better than rushing to finish a project by a specific date.

Working best under pressure

“A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.”

Rita Mae Brown

In defense of deadlines, there are some people I know who claim to work best when they are under pressure. They thrive off of the thrill of channeling their stress into a state of flow – getting in the zone – and working their butts off until they have finally finished their project.

This could be true for some creative endeavors, but I imagine that this strategy is most effective with work that is more do-oriented and less thinking-oriented.

If you already have a clear picture in your head of what needs to get done, then setting a deadline is a great way to motivate yourself towards action.

One example I will borrow from my own life:

I have been wanting to write an ebook on well-being and happiness ever since I first got interested in mental health and personal development. I have had ideas floating around in my head for years. Finally earlier this year I wrote an outline on the types of lessons I wanted to include. Now that I have everything comprehensively planned out, it all boils down to getting it done.

Realizing this, I now know it is a good time to set a deadline for actually getting this thing out of my mind and into the world. That is why I am giving myself until the end of the month to finish writing it. This is one case where I am OK with setting deadlines – even though I am the kind of person who usually prefers spontaneity.

A beacon of light in the distance

Because most people are so bad at time management, we often see deadlines as something that is always right in front of us – forcing us to get to work and get things completed.

However, deadlines can also be something we place in the distant future. For example, when I first started this blog in June of 09 I gave myself two years to turn it into a profitable enterprise. I am not even a year into it yet but this deadline has guided me to stay focused on what my bigger goals are. It is a beacon of light – a vision for the future – that is in the background of everything that I do.

When deadlines are used in this way they can become a kind of symbol for success, something to aspire towards, and dedicate energy to gradually over time. Deadlines don’t always have to rush us to be effective; they can give us room and be inspiring.

You may have already set deadlines like this without even being aware of it. For example: when you were a young adult (or if you are one now like me), you may have said at one point, “I won’t get married until I am 30.” This is one example of setting benchmarks way in the future.

Beware, however, that when we place these distant deadlines for the future, if we don’t revisit those goals and aspirations from time to time, we may forget about them or run too far off track.

When do deadlines work best for you?

This is my rudimentary analysis of deadlines. I don’t wish to rid the world of them completely, but I do think it is important we put them into perspective. In some contexts they can do wonders, while in other contexts they can inhibit us severely.

Tell me – what are your experiences and thoughts on deadlines? When do they work best for you?

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